What You Should Know About Pork Production Claims

My wife giving one of our pastured pigs a kissI’m grateful once again to have our friend David Maren of Tendergrass Farms pen today’s guest post. This is the second post in a three part series on the assertions that retailers make about the way their poultry, pork, and beef is raised.

In last week’s post I shared some information about a few common and often misleading claims that poultry companies make about the way their chickens and turkeys are raised. We looked at the fact that while most companies don’t actually lie to their customers directly, they do rely on meticulously calculated marketing terminology that leads their customers to believe that their birds were raised in ways that they, in actual fact, were not. I labored to expose the unfortunate reality that many poultry companies respond to the public’s demand for alternatively raised birds with dishonest advertising rather than real changes in the lucrative CAFO poultry production system that their customers increasingly don’t want to support. In the pork industry today, we face many of the same realities of deceptive marketing, empty claims, and regulation loopholes – a few of which I will attempt to uncover in this post. I won’t bore you with an explanation of every pork claim used in this day and age but the examples below can serve as illustrations of the type of analytical discernment needed in the marketplace today.

In the spirit of full disclosure I should start by mentioning that I happen to love raising and eating pastured pigs. This evening as I sit at my desk on my little farm here in Floyd County, Virginia, a herd of less than 20 pastured pigs is lying outside my bedroom window in a big snoring heap in the tall grass. I think that pastured pork farming is pretty cool. However, I happen to have a first cousin in Iowa whom I respect considerably even though he raises pigs using a very different model. He almost single-handedly raises about 25,000 pigs every year in 14 state of the art fully computerized CAFO buildings. I’ve seen his operation many times and I know that he is proud of what he does. The system that he runs is an extraordinary example of engineering genius and he feeds a tremendous number of people through the conventional pork system that he’s a part of. While I differ with him greatly from an applied agricultural philosophy standpoint I respect him as a fellow farmer nonetheless.

I bring this up because although I might enjoy writing an article on exactly why I believe that the pork that I raise is better than the pork my cousin raises, my intention throughout this 3-post series on livestock production claims is to inform you about the choices you have when it comes to buying meat, not to convince you to share my particular point of view. In the paleo community there are lots of worthy articles that have already been written regarding the health benefits of grass fed meats, pastured meats, and omega-3’s so I feel no need to convince anyone of the merits of one production method over another in this series. My objective is to sketch a broad but accurate outline of the primary ways that pigs are raised and the methods by which these differing production models are craftily misrepresented through marketing. In short, my goal is for you to be able to tell my cousin’s pork from mine when you go shopping this week despite the haze of promotional terms that you may encounter, no matter which one you end up actually purchasing.

Niman Ranch All Natural Pork

In this screenshot the Niman Ranch website expounds on their pork’s “all-natural” claim


Niman Ranch is probably the most renowned name in the natural pork industry. It was founded in the early 1970’s by a man by the name of Bill Niman. Bill originally raised 100 percent of their pork on pasture. Now Niman Ranch is owned by Natural Food Holdings (part of Hilco Equity Partners). The Niman Ranch homepage features an uplifting photograph of a couple of speckled sows, outdoors, grazing with a few piglets trailing behind. On the page that details the superiority of their all-natural pork it is mentioned that the genetic lines that they use are “particularly well suited to an outdoor environment.” Lastly, the statement is made that Niman Ranch pork is “raised outdoors or in deeply bedded pens.”

The term “natural” is a term that the FDA has yet to define (with or without the modifier “all” which just means “entirely”). The FDA, however, does say that “the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”1 The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service goes slightly farther in saying that when the term “natural” is used the meaning of the term must be specified2 (as Niman Ranch does above). Note that this means that according to the FDA and the FSIS definitions (or lack thereof), the term “all natural” doesn’t necessarily have any bearing whatsoever on how the animal was actually raised. It simply means that it does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. While it certainly can mean more than that, it doesn’t have to. As far as you know, was there ever any practical need to add food colorings, flavorings, or any other ingredients to a raw pork chop to start with? I don’t think so.

Now let’s look at the whole picture. The Niman Ranch website shows photos of pigs grazing on grassy pasture. It says that the Niman Ranch pigs are genetically well suited for the outdoors. Notice, however, that the only direct claim about how their pigs are raised says “raised outdoors or in deeply bedded pens.” Hang on a second, did they really just say “or”? From my experience, raising pigs outdoors where they can actually graze is quite expensive (mostly due to labor and land costs) and, rather conveniently for Niman Ranch, the use of the word “or” allows them to raise up to 100% of their pigs in “deeply bedded pens” while still maintaining that this statement is technically true.

A year or two before I co-founded Tendergrass Farms I seriously considered raising pigs for Niman Ranch. I was struggling to find a viable market for my pastured pigs locally and I thought that at least from what I had read on their website they looked like a company that I’d be happy to partner with. I contacted the Niman Ranch headquarters and was given a cell phone number for the field representative who was responsible for my region. One of my first questions for him was about their production standards. I believe I asked him how many pigs Niman Ranch recommended to graze per acre of pasture or something similar. As soon as I had asked the question I could almost see him smiling over the phone line as he explained to this young naive farmer that only a small percentage of Niman Ranch pigs are actually raised on pasture. In the whole east coast region he said that there are virtually no pasture-based Niman producers. In preparation for this blog post I sent him an email this week to make sure that this was still true. He confirmed just yesterday that by his estimate well over 75% of Niman Ranch pig farms utilize warehouse-style buildings with straw for bedding, referred to as “deeply bedded barns.” During those first few conversations that we had a few years back he also told me that for the most part they had moved away from the traditional Duroc, Chester White, and Berkshire breeds that the website boasts about in favor of modern breeds developed by a certain multinational genetics company called PIC. Shocked and even slightly disillusioned, I quickly gave up the idea of ever raising pigs for Niman Ranch.

Does all of this mean that Niman Ranch pork is bad pork? I probably wouldn’t say that. But I would definitely be willing to say that the average Niman Ranch customer has likely been deceived into believing that they’re eating pastured pork when in fact they are not.

Swift All Natural Pork

This Swift brand “premium” pork uses a different definition of “all natural” from the one used by Niman Ranch

“Premium,” Paylean, & Artificial Growth Promotants

Notice that this pork claims to be “premium.” As you may already be aware, this term does carry along with it a very strict government standard – but only in the context of high octane gasoline. When it comes to meat, “premium” means nothing at all.

Observe also that the definition that Swift uses for “all natural” is entirely different from that of Niman Ranch. One key element that is missing from Swift’s product description is the issue of artificial growth promotants and subtherapeutic antibiotics. You might just assume that “all natural” pigs wouldn’t be raised with a daily ration of antibiotics or pharmaceutical growth enhancers but in fact there is a very high probability that this product in made from pigs that were fed these types of additives right up until slaughter.

Artificial hormone use is illegal in pork production in the US but the use of other artificial growth-promoting chemicals is extensive, far beyond the mere use of antibiotics for this purpose. The best example of this is a chemical feed additive called Paylean. Paylean is the brand name for ractopamine, a beta-adrenoceptor agonist that artificially promotes leanness in pigs.3 As the paleo world is already well aware, most Americans don’t like to eat much lard. This causes big problems for the pork industry but Paylean eases the burden. Pigs are naturally very fatty animals and Paylean greatly decreases the amount of fat that pigs produce as they grow. Unlike some drugs, Paylean requires no withdrawal period whatsoever so pigs can be fed Paylean even on the day of slaughter. The Swift brand “all natural” pork in the image above was in all likelihood given this drug. Isn’t it interesting that ractopamine has been banned in all pork in mainland China, Russia, and the European Union but in the US it is allowed to be used even in “all natural” pork?

Sugar Mountain Farm Pastured Pork

A close up of a Sugar Mountain Farm pork label claiming to be free ranging outdoors, & “crate free.”

Free Ranging Outdoors/Pastured, Crate Free

The most striking characteristic of the marketing claims that are made on this label compared with those made by Niman Ranch and Swift above is their uncompromising specificity. The term “free ranging outdoors” (not to be confused with “free range”) is actually synonymous with “pastured.” Both terms would refer to the fact that the animals at Sugar Mtn. Farm are actually raised outdoors where they forage for grass and other green leafy matter as a source of food. As with poultry, the term “free range” is often used to refer to pigs raised in CAFO-style buildings with small areas outdoors where the pigs may or may not occasionally venture out – far from the grassy meadow that the term “free range” tends to bring to most people’s minds. Sugar Mountain Farm, however, specifically says that they free-range their pigs outdoors. If you take a look at their website you’ll see hundreds of photos that show that this is true even in the coldest winter months in Vermont when they have to actually feed their pigs hay!

The term “crate free” is somewhat less common. It refers to the fact that Sugar Mountain Farm pigs are raised from piglets born to sows that are managed without the use of gestation or farrowing crates. Gestation crates are an invention of the modern pork industry that resembles a cage slightly larger than the sow that resides within it. Gestation crates are a very space efficient (but arguably cruel) way to house sows during their 3 month, 3 week, and 3 day gestation period. Sugar Mtn. Farm makes it clear that they don’t use this management method with their sows by calling their pork “crate free.”

The other type of crate that is often used in the pork industry is the farrowing crate. The word farrow simply means to give birth in porcine terminology so a farrowing crate is a tightly confined area, usually about 3’ by 6’, where the sow gives birth to her piglets. In order to keep the 2-pound piglets from being crushed by their 400-pound mother they are usually confined to the farrowing crate for the first three to four weeks after birth. Protective “roll bars” allow the piglets plenty of room to walk around where their mother can’t kill them by mistake when she gets up, sits down, or rolls over. While Sugar Mountain Farm boasts that they don’t engage in this type of sow management the alternative may not be as humane as you would hope. When sows are given sufficient space to move around freely with their piglets the number of piglets that are stepped on and crushed to death goes up dramatically. On the farrowing crate question you essentially have to decide whether you feel that a sow being cramped and uncomfortable for a few weeks is more humane than a bucket of dead baby pigs. There are pros and cons on both sides of the issue but as we have seen with all other production claims so far it’s critical to put aside assumptions and do some research before supposing too much. There are some people who, through their research on the topic, have actually come to the position of being anti-gestation crate but pro-farrowing crate. This has been a very hot topic for even the biggest pork firms over the last few years.

I once brought this idea up to a lead researcher at a University of Minnesota alternative swine systems development program. Keep in mind that the man had spent a large part of his career developing “humane” alternatives to farrowing crates. I had just recently visited a farm where I had seen a sow that had killed all 9 piglets that she had given birth to because she was in an open pen with them. I asked the researcher if he really thought that farrowing crates were inhumane after taking into account the deaths of so many piglets that are virtually unavoidable in alternative systems. He said, “David, I actually agree with you. But the problem is that if you stood by that position you’d just be a voice in the wind. The consumer believes that farrowing crates are inhumane so we need to look for good alternatives.” (Just for the record there are no Tendergrass partner farms that currently use farrowing crates but we have a neutral stance when it comes to our farms purchasing piglets that were born in them.)

Tendergrass Farms Pastured Pork

A Tendergrass Farms website screenshot showing that we claim to sell pastured pork

Pastured Pigs and What They Eat

Here are Tendergrass Farms we call our pork a lot of things but one of them is “pastured.” One of the most common questions that we get here at Tendergrass Farms is, “Do you feed your pigs anything other than grass?” As with pastured poultry, many people assume that because we raise our pigs on grassy pastures then grass must be all they eat. The problem is that in order to function biologically pigs need a good source of protein, specifically lysine. Pigs are very resilient creatures so even though it isn’t necessarily good for their health it is in fact theoretically possible to raise them on pasture alone because they do eat a certain number of grubs and other insects that contain protein. That said, pastured pigs are almost universally rotationally grazed on pasture with access to some type of alternate feed source to keep them healthy. The nature and quantity of protein-rich feed that the pastured pigs are given varies a lot from farm to farm but the most common lysine sources are corn, roasted soybeans, and even out-of-date milk. In the case of Tendergrass and my pigs specifically, we even go to the trouble to make sure that the corn and soy that they’re fed was grown from non-GMO seed.

Don’t Make Assumptions, Ask Questions

The best way to hold your pork provider accountable is to make sure that you really understand any and all claims that are being made. As I said regarding poultry, if an organization is marketing its products with integrity they’ll be proud to define their terms. There mere fact that certain pork may be called “gourmet” and sold on a website that also offers grass fed beef doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily what you hope it is. Pasture raised pork demands a premium price and unfortunately there are plenty of companies that are happy to take your money even if they can’t give you exactly what you came for..


1This quote can be found under “FDA Basics” on the FDA website.

2This regulation can be found on the USDA FSIS website under Meat and Poultry Labeling Terms

3The manufacturer of Paylean gives a helpful explanation of how it works on their site.

David Maren is a husband, father, farmer, and co-founder of Tendergrass Farms. Tendergrass Farms is a cooperative-style online grass fed meats shop that exists as a bridge between the often geographically isolated family farmer and committed grass fed meats enthusiasts like yourself. The Tendergrass Farms vision is to sustain family farms through making it easy for you to purchase their meats by taking advantage of appropriate technology and ultra-efficient transportation models that enable their meats to be shipped to fans all around the USA.

If you’re not already a huge fan of Tendergrass Farms, you’re missing out: Go bookmark their site, like their Facebook page, follow them on Twitter, and check out their grass fed blog!

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77 thoughts on “What You Should Know About Pork Production Claims”

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  1. I worked for a company who, for years, purchased Niman products. It wasn’t really a nice acquisition, and Niman is not even allowed to use his own name on his meat anymore. I think they raise goats now. Anyway, there is much misleading info in the meat industry, especially if produced by large companies. Again, you MUST know your farmer, try to make that connection to the people who grow/raise your food. Ask to get a look at the farm if you can. In our town there is a particular pork farmer, who claims natural/non CAFO, but he will not let you look at his farm. It is butted up next to a CAFO farm, and his production and product placement in so many stores, has gotten people wondering if he’s actually producing the sheer volume of pork he sells in a natural way. Ask these kinds of questions people!

  2. Anyone in the NY/NJ area, do yourself a favor and track down pork from Mosefund Farms. They specialize in the Mangalista breed, aka the King of Lard. Top quality. Mosefund is located in Branchville, NJ, which ia also close to the PA border.

    1. Thanks! I’ll look up Mosefund Farms, i was just standing here (at my stand up desk 🙂 wondering where to go around Yonkers for healthier choices.

    2. We’ll definitely have a look as Mosefund – thanks for the tip, Bon!.
      Couple of other NJ resources: “Doublebrook Farm” and “Mallery’s Simply Grazin’ Meats.”
      I’ve seen the pigs at Doublebrook Farm (in Skillman) – they are both pastured and kept in large indoor/outdoor pens – very happy looking pigs! They open their farm store every so often – not cheap, but really good. One has to follow heir blog for store openings (they open one of the barns as a “store”)
      I haven’t seen the pig raising conditions at the Simlpy Grazin’ farms (also in Skillman), but they do have two new retail locations: one in Skillman (as a butcher shop) and one in Hillsborough (butcher shop and cafe).

        1. 🙂 I eat it and like it and get it from their farm which looks legit, but I’ve never seen any sign of the pigs. May just have to ask them next time!

      1. It’s not a “thinking” thing. It’s “I’m a huge animal (relatively speaking) and it’s hard not to step or otherwise crush these tiny creatures attempting to latch on about 5-10 inches away from foot” thing. 🙂

        Sows that absolutely can’t avoid crushing their piglets obviously don’t pass on their genes. However, I can see even the careful sows getting into accidents. 🙁

      2. You’d be amazed how much dysfunctional mothering goes on in the animal kingdom. Competent motherhood is by no means an evolutionary given. Particularly, new mothers often get confused/don’t know what to do and reject their infant. Motherhood is a process of experimentation and learning for them just like it is for us, and some animals are better at it than others.

    1. That can be difficult to say, as there is always a higher mortality rate for animals born in the wild. The study I found below found that wild hogs once captured in fact do the same behavior. It also shows that, like many animals, some pigs are just not the best moms sometimes. Deaths can be accidents or caused directly by the mother on occasion for a variety of reasons.

      I grew up on a small farm and this topic has always interested me. I can see why people don’t love the idea of the crates. They are very confining. I always hated finding dead baby pigs. I haven’t really made a decision on the topic yet.


      1. Interesting. Thanks for the information. I just found it a remarkable fact for what is generally considered an intellegent animal. I get the big-and-clumsy thing, but even elephants are known to be pretty graceful and conscientious about where they step.

    2. I’m guessing wild pigs are not as massive as meat-bred pigs so it’s probably less of a problem.

  3. Because of the scare of antibiotics in my food, I’ve decided to severely limit my consumption of meat when I am not sure of the source. Not being able to control what’s going into my body, or my family’s body scares the bejesus out of me and I have decided to vote with my wallet + support local farms. I applaud your commitment to raising whole and healthy food and your coupon!!!

  4. Another wonderfully informative post. Coincidentally, I crossed paths with the Sugar Mountain farmer on a couple of message boards last week!

    I’m fortunate to have some excellent pastured pork farms in this area, and the difference in taste is night and day. Supermarket pork is just bland to me. You eat a real pork chop and you’ll see the difference.

    My new favorite: https://www.northmountainpastures.com/our-animals

  5. It’s soooo discouraging to discover that some of these well-known producers are fooling the public… and I’ve been paying the higher prices for meat that I thought was superior to CAFO and probably wasn’t. I’ve recently been purchasing meat from a local farm, and just went back to review their website. They specifically state that the beef is grass fed, and that the poultry is pastured, but the wording is a little more vague on the pork so I’ll have to question the farmer about their practices next time I’m there. Thanks for the tip about Mosefund Farms, it’s close enough for me to drive out there to for some Managlitsa pork!

  6. Is there really such a thing as GMO-free soy and corn these days?

    1. I recall that Kenyon’s Grist Mill’s “Flint” corn is a native, non-GMO corn in New England. They have a booth at the Big E (New England’s largest agriculture fair) and they sell really tasty “Johnny Cakes”. Now, I do not know if they source other corn but I imagine they do. And since they have a mill there could be cross contamination. But hey, sometimes a corn fritter is too tasty to pass up on.

    2. Good point. Absolutely pure non-GMO corn and soy is very hard to find. In fact I’ve heard horror stories of Monsanto genes being found deep in Mexico in the most remote corn growing regions. That said, here at Tendergrass Farms, we define ‘non-GMO’ as “corn or soy grown from non-GMO seed.” In other words, the farmer is planting seed that isn’t a patented GM product. At this point most of our farmers source their feed from these folks – feel free to check them out: https://sunrisefarm.net/sunrisefeeds.html

  7. My meat guy, Don Edmonds of Edmonds Bison (in SE VA) raises bison, Berkshire pigs, and some breed of heirloom chickens (name escapes me now), as well as his own hay, on his 200-acre ranch–the animals all run together in the fields. I’m so glad I have a 1-stop protein source.

    He’s also branching out to rhea and ducks. A rhea egg is the size of a bowling ball, and would probably make an omelet the size of a throw rug! Talk about convenient people feeding: one omelet would feed an entire family, provided you could figure out how to turn it over while cooking it. 🙂

    Bison bacon, anybody? He’s got it!

  8. This would be a great theme for a line of movies. Even a farm-grading system. A local PBer and a local camera person could visit a grass-fed farm and interview the manager or owner. Later they could show the surrounding area, the price of farms and/or farm land (some PBers may be interested in entering farming), the climate and ecology, the finances of the state (maybe start with Arthur B. Laffer’s Rich States, Poor States, and the finances of PB farming; the politics of the State and it’s policies, etc.

    It seems obvious that to maintain and grow the Paleo movements many, many more local farms are needed, and then need to be in areas relatively densely populated with PBer, or where they could become so populated.

    1. The last three years, we have bought 4 piglets from a local heritage pig farmer and raised them ourselves on pasture, kitchen scraps, compost from the local organic food store, local organic wheat, spent grains from a local organic brewery, and a bit of soy thrown in for the lysine.

      We also built chicken tractors, and raised 50 pastured meat chickens each year. We have 7 acres, of which maybe 1/3 gets used for the animals.

      So with a bit of extra work between May and October (we both have non-farming jobs) and a lot of trial and error, we meet most of our meat needs for our family of 4, and some friends. We buy a whole grass-fed beef from a local farmer ($3.50/lb), and that’s pretty much it.

      It can be done, if you’re a bit adventurous! (Memories of chasing a 200 lb pig across the road with a toddler on my back and my husband in China spring to mind!)

  9. This is all nice honest info and all, and I appreciate it, but at upwards of $80/lb. for grass fed beef filet or $16/lb. for chicken breasts on this man’s website, can we really make the claim that spending that much money is worth the health benefits from this kind of farming? A realistic practical assessment says no. I get the whole farrowing crate concept for example, but the article doesn’t do a good job of pointing out what health benefits I’m getting for the hugely added cost.

    I have local sources for all this, too, including Whole Foods, which doesn’t have a ton of pastured animal products for sale, but it’s still of high quality. Chicken breast is closer to $4-6/a pound there. I think to worry about what grain they were fed and how they were penned or not and paying a premium for it is not wise. I’ll take an extra Omega-3 tablet or something, or just have smaller portions or more vegetables to compensate.

    I think this also gives an opening for the Primal/Paleo debunker morons to say, “Look these people are too obsessed and myopic in their desire for purer animal products and look how much money they want you to spend. Don’t listen to them.” Very persuasive argument to those on the outside looking in.

    1. In fairness, I don’t think this really is an opening for Paleo debunkers. I’ve found that if people don’t want to believe you, they will find some random argument against it, no matter how tightly/well you make the case.

      I do agree though, that the relative economics are important. I’m very glad that farmers like this and those listed in the comments do exist. I buy what I can from them, usually eggs/offal/fat/produce and the occasional whole bird. Their very existence encourages genetic diversity in animal and crop populations and creates quality competition for large scale farming.

      With a family, though, our budget for food has a real limit. The choices are to eat crazy expensive meat (tiny portions) and fill in the calories with rice/tubers or go majority conventional/quasi-conventional with supplements. We’ve chosen the later.

    2. It always pays to do some research and find good local resources. Eatwild is a site that has a ton of great farms broken out by state. If I can avoid the reseller and deal with the farm, I’d prefer to do that. And I’ve found some pretty good pricing along the way.

    3. One word: Craigslist

      I have located and purchased multiple bulk grassfed cow shares as well as pastured chicken/duck eggs for very reasonable prices through craigslist. Of course “reasonable” is based on each person’s perspective, but I have paid <$3.50/lb hanging weight for vacuum sealed, freezer ready cow shares in both Upstate, NY and SF Bay. Its also a neat experience, since they will typically let you choose how the butchering (cuts, thickness, weight per cut, etc) and packing is done. Deals can be found if you are a smart shopper.

      Shopping on Craigslist means you are almost certainly dealing directly with the farmer, and also since its usually smaller, local farmers selling on there that do not have the same established pricing methodology and standardization in their menu and ordering process as a place like Tendergrass, their prices will not reflect as much overhead or require the added shipping/handling charges.

    4. There’s so much more that pastured animals do for us; unfortunately, the benefits of restored topsoil, bird & bee forage, open spaces for gophers & snakes and the raptors that eat them, rainwater absorption, just aren’t recognized, economically.

      Commodity crops and CAFOs get smaller dollars-per-unit, but raise more units, or pounds of protein per square foot, or whatever the investors calculate.

      Grassfed/organic is a rough business model, and that’s ok, because the business model, as it applies to farming, is ruining our food supply.

      1. I’m not sure pastures are “natural” in most places (like the whole Eastern forest region and certainly not the Western Deserts).

        Also, considering that the business model of farming has allowed my family to eat for decades, it’s hard to say it’s ruining my personal food supply.

        Ultimately, food, like every aspect of our lives must obey the laws of economics to be truly sustainable. That doesn’t mean conventional is the the only economically sustainable model because it’s cheapest. But it does mean at some point organic/grassfed farms need to grow beyond the “several years of losses/no profits/hobby farm” model.

    5. Larry,

      The intention of this article (and this series) is specifically to inform consumers about their choices and the deceptive marketing practices that make those choices hard to tell apart. It seems that after reading this article and learning more about your choices you still feel comfortable purchasing conventional meats and I have no problem with that. Bon appétit!

      Your mentioned our high pastured chicken breast price (https://www.grassfedbeef.org/Beyond-Organic-Boneless-Skinless-Chicken-Breast.html). You might find it interesting that we plan on barely breaking even on all of the chicken cuts except for the breast and we then have around a 300% margin on the breast. This is because if we did it any other way we’d always be out of stock on breast and overstocked on everything else. Americans just seem to love chicken breast.

      One last fact: our farmers get about $11 per chicken and out butcher gets about $4.75 for processing it. Our “Free Shipping” usually costs about $30 per order. Maybe those numbers help explain why we need to charge what we do. Small scale farming and artisan butchering isn’t cheap and nor is the convenience that we offer our customers – the luxury of not having to drive an hour or two out into the country to find a farmer to sell you some good meat.

  10. Now I’m going to have to check out the Applegate Sunday bacon I’ve been getting at Fresh Market, I thought it was ok, but now I’m not so sure. It says the animals are humanely raised, and there is one video of a pig farmer in Iowa whose pigs seem to be raised outdoors.) I’m willing to spend more for animals raised in a natural way, but I don’t want to be fooled by marketing tricks.
    I still vivedly remember one time (more than 50 years ago) at my grandfather’s farm when the sow rolled over and killed about 9 newborn piglets. I felt so sad as I watched my dad pitch them out of the pen. My grandfather wasn’t too happy about it either.

  11. I’m a primal eater and raise Berkshires here in San Diego county. People want their piggies raised to frolic in some idyllic, lush green pasture all the time. Depends on where you’re situated. Perhaps in Virginia, the climate permits year-round actual pasture. Where I am, its semi-arid (read: almost desert). Most places are inhospitable to full-time, year round lush grassy pasture. So, like Walter Jefferies (of Sugar Mtn. Farms in Vermont mentioned in the article) we have to bring the pasture to the pigs, aka feed hay. Either because of tundra-like conditions in Vermont or arid regions like Southern California, primal conscious consumers should know that ranchers like us have to adapt to our local environment while trying to achieve that so-called pastured product.

    And an extremely important point raised in the article that could easily be overlooked, is that while you might demand 100% grass-fed pork, that’s not the optimum diet for the pig. THEY NEED LYSINE for healthy growth and that means a good alternate protein source like dairy or grain. My pigs are on pasture when its seasonally available, then alfalfa and a custom grain mix that doesn’t include soy.

    Therefore, if I could add one humongous point to this educational stream of consciousness it would be this: It seems that swing trend in consumer demand in our primal world is 100% GRASS FED, mostly for the proper omega 3/6 balance. But when it comes to omnivorous pigs, that IS NOT the optimum diet for them. And my own (very expensive) testing of their lipid profile shows that its not that eating 100% grass that makes for good fatty acids, its what you DON’T feed them. i.e., don’t feed rations high in PUF… that means no added vegetable oils.

    Consider this for example:

    “Raising pigs on pasture isn’t in itself a very effective way to reduce the PUFA content of lard. In one study (2), lard from pigs fed pasture and acorns was 8.7 percent PUFA while lard from pigs fed barley, wheat bran, soy meal, lard, and nutritional supplements was 6.9 percent PUFA. GRASS HAS MANY BENEFITS, BUT INCLUDING IT DOESN’T LOWER THE PUFA CONTENT OF LARD BEYOND WHAT COULD BE ACCOMPLISHED SIMPLY BY BANISHING VEGETABLE OILS FROM THESE POOR PIGGIES’ DIETS.” (emphasis mine).

    For the entire article: https://www.westonaprice.org/blogs/cmasterjohn/2011/11/25/good-lard-bad-lard-what-do-you-get-when-you-cross-a-pig-and-a-coconut/

    The bottom line? 100% pastured pigs, while good, doesn’t mean best, and just because your pork producer includes other feed rations like dairy or grain, doesn’t mean your porchetta is going to kill you with an overload of o-6’s. Cattle, elk, buffalo, deer etc. are ruminants, so all grass all the time is awesome… not so for pigs.

    1. Nice reply and well put together. You actually DON’T want your pigs totally grass fed.

    2. Good thoughts, Phil! Thanks for pointing out the importance of taking climate into account. I’ll touch more on that in my last post in this series: “What You Should Know About Beef Production Claims.” Those south Texas grass fed beef outfits always make me wonder…

    3. Also, it must use a *huge* amount of grass, because pigs are diggers, not grazers (there’s probably a better word for it!). We raise our own pigs on a small holding/homestead in Wales, permanently outside (we buy in as 8 week weaners and slaughter at 7-10 months) in large pens, and it does not take long before every inch of greenery is removed down to the roots (seriously, after an October kill there are bits just starting to grow again. Sheep and cows don’t do that). Our pigs don’t get hormones or antibiotics or anything else but the reality is their feed is mainly bought-in feed (we buy non-gmo feed but not organic) based on soy or maize. Even kitchen scraps are illegal in the UK. So how does that compare to the US term ‘pastured’? What kind of acreage per pig do you need to maintain grass growth?

  12. I am disillusioned about the Niman Ranch pork not actually being pasture raised. 🙁 I believe they are the main pork provider for Chipotle restaurants. All this time I thought I was eating pasture raised pork in my carnitas. I wonder if Niman Ranch pork was primarily pasture raised in 2001 when Chipotle first started purchasing from them? I wonder if Chipotle is even aware of this?

    1. All I see on Chipotle’s menu is that their pigs are raised naturally without gestation pens or farrowing crates, IIRC.

  13. Ha! So Walter at Sugar Mountain “boasts”, huh? What the heck are you doing here, if not boasting about your hogs? I’d much rather buy meat from a place that has their pigs live a natural lifestyle outside year round eating hay and whey rather than eat one that was raised on pasture and fed corn and soybeans, non-GMO or not.

    This sounds like sour grapes to me.

    1. The use of boasts in this case is not sour grapes. Dave rightly points out that even when a producer uses methods that are far better than most there may still be questions you may want to ask for yourself. And Tendergrass doesn’t have any suppliers who use farrowing crates so Dave is in the same position as Sugar Mountain Farm.

      “On the farrowing crate question you essentially have to decide whether you feel that a sow being cramped and uncomfortable for a few weeks is more humane than a bucket of dead baby pigs. There are pros and cons on both sides of the issue but as we have seen with all other production claims so far it’s critical to put aside assumptions and do some research before supposing too much.”

      Which is more humane to you — crated sow for a few weeks or crushed piglets? It is a tough call but if this was the only difference between two producers — and all the low hanging fruit was picked (pastured/free range outdoor, non-gmo feeds, organic feeds, etc) — I would probably go with price difference now that I am aware of the issue.

      Even though I have lived on a farm that produced some pigs I was not aware of this issue. I appreciate learning something new about how my food is produced.

    2. That sentence was a little disheartening to me too… I wish there was a bit more detail regarding this practice:
      -How much of their diet is typically supplemented with grains/soy? 1%, 90%?
      -Why aren’t non-grain alternatives used (milk/whey/supplemented grubs/etc)?
      -Why are the grains necessary to begin with if they are being raised on pasture in their natural way, is the pasture space too restrictive for the # of animals it contains?

      Although I realize that non-GMO is ideal, I still avoid grains/soy as much as entirely possible. I also strive to avoid eating meats produced from animals that consumed said grains… And speaking strictly from a utilitarian view (well-being, quality of life, horomones/antibiotics, and other factors in the raising of the animal aside), how much healthier for me the consumer does this pork meat actually end up vs. CAFO?

      Its sad that I now have to know that the term “pastured,” which prior to this article I thought to mean “the bees knees of meat choices which cannot be healthier or more natural for this animal,” can actually still be grain fed. Is there a term above pastured that actually meets my definition?

      1. +1

        Same was said about the chicken as well. Obviously its a better choice but at 1000% markup…..

    3. I think PaleoMBA understood me correctly. I have a lot of respect for Walter Jeffries (farmer at Sugar Mtn. Farm) and I think he raises some fine pork. Anyone who raises good meat should have a right to boast about it a bit – I sure do! No disrespect was meant by my use of the term “boasts.”

  14. My kids have raised hogs for 4H to show & then sell at an auction. Many people consider these hogs very high quality compared to commercial pigs & pay top dollar for quality as well as supporting the kids. I was very interested in going the grassfed route & supplementing with whey from our grassfed cow & produce scraps. This practice is not allowed because they want the buyers to know what they’re getting &have a more uniform product. My first year I pastured them anyway & supplemented with a high protein feed. Granted my pigs were the happiest pigs I’d ever seen, they showed poorly. They were much more fatty than the hogs raised on purely show rations. They also didn’t look freakish & act psycho like many at shows do. Anyway, I was disappointed that our youngsters in ag are discouraged in raising their hogs in a grassfed model as well as the standard.

    1. +1 This is one of the most important comments on this post. Thanks.

  15. David, thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with all of us. I have learned a lot from your two posts. I live in NC, near the VA border and just visited Floyd a couple of weekends ago. Is your farm ever open to visitors?
    Thanks again for the education, and thank you Mark for inviting David to write for your blog.

  16. nicolette Hahn niman wrote a book called Righteous Porkchop, which talks about this topic a lot. She is surprisingly a vegetarian, and the wife of Bill Niman.

  17. Yes this stuff is expensive. But there is a market for it and it is growing. This series of articles is important in raising awareness so that we, the consumers can start demanding better meat from humane sources. It’s gonna happen people – slowly but surely it’s happening – and prices will come down with competition and when large buyers like Costco start sourcing it. They are currently buying grass-fed beef out of New Zealand and Australia – a little from Canada and the US. But I read that there are not large-enough processing plants for grass-fed beef here, and that Costco is building their own in California. I hope that is exclusively for grass-fed beef. That would be huge.

    I currently don’t buy pastured chicken or pork due to the expense. I don’t feel any less Paleo because of it.

  18. I meant large-enough processing plants to supply a buyer like Costco.

  19. Just wanted to add that it’s great to see Walter at Sugar Mountain Farm cited as an example of true pastured hog farming. In my search for high quality pork, I’ve found his site to be the most informative of any I’ve encountered. I drove several hours to visit his farm and purchase some products, and he gave me a tour where I saw the hogs outside being fed silage even in the winter. They looked quite happy to me! 🙂

  20. Great article! Thanks for addressing the Niman meats claims…thought their “fed vegetarian” was weird since hogs/pigs are omnivores ( like we humans ). So glad we have had the experience of raising Mulefoot hogs and, yes, putting them in our freezers. Pastured fresh Mulefoot is fantastic!

  21. Wild pigs get their protein how? Grubs, meal worms, and other insects? Same with wild chicken-like birds? Why not become bug farmers and feed them the bugs rather than feed them corn and soy for their protein? We currently do not eat chicken, pork or eggs because everyone we’ve found “has” to supplement using grains. As someone whose brain and body is ultra sensitive to non-wild fed meat, I wonder why this isn’t done? Can anyone enlighten me why this isn’t done?

    1. Some people are doing it. I’ve seen several articles written by homesteaders who raise worms in their manure for their chickens. The worms turn around & make “black gold” out of the manure & it is used in the garden. Small farmers who try exist on their own often use these “circles” to supply their farm. Healthier land & animals & people. Admittedly I own chickens & let them run around & forage but buy organic soy-free feed to supplement & for winter (just plain lazy!) The quality of my eggs summer vs. winter is tremendous.

  22. A comment on farrowing crates….you nailed it. I am from farm/ranch America. We raised cattle, not hogs. But I know the farrowing crates are an absolute necessity! It is difficult for the sow NOT to lay or step on piglets when she can have a brood of 10 or more. And she is no pixie! 🙁
    I also know of a piggy mill several miles away. Yes, they can crank out hogs but the poor animals….The sows get artificially inseminated as they are kept in jail. As soon as the tiny piglets can manage it they wean them by taking them from mom. The housed animals don’t see the light of day. I always “threatened” that I would come in the night and let them all out. Unfortunately it has 24/seven staff–as do all prisons. PS. They produce lots of hogs. They need to because the death toll is staggering.

  23. Hey there commenters –

    Just wanted to apologize for not being as active in the comments as I’d like to be. Speaking of farrowing crates, my wife gave birth this week to our second daughter which has left me a bit busy. 😉

    Keep up the comments and I’ll do my best to respond, especially to direct questions/comments.

    You can also always feel free to email me at david {at} tendergrass.org

  24. Great article, terms, facts and ideas I can wrap my head around.
    I’m in California and I order from Tendergrass Farms. Spending $199 on these farmers pork and beef is not difficult and I don’t have a large freezer. Then David picks up the shipping! 🙂 Great meat and excellent customer service from across the country. Keep up the high standards David and congrats on the new addition to your family.

  25. This is long but since our farm is featured I though you might like some deeper details on some of the things mentioned above…

    Pasture consists of many forages, some of which are grasses. Grass is a large percentage but good pastures also include high protein, highly palatable clovers, alfalfa, vetch and other legumes, brassicas, etc. Fruit and nut trees are some of the other things we have on our pastures.

    We don’t feed commercial hog feed or buy commercial grain feeds here at Sugar Mountain. We have raised some batches of pigs 100% on pasture – they take a few extra months to get to market weight and are leaner. We find that also feeding the dairy (mostly whey) brings their growth to about the same as grain fed pigs which is about six months. The whey is a ‘waste’ from making cheese so this is recycling nutrients and keeping them out of the waste stream. The dairy primarily provides the amino-acid lysine which is a limiting protein. Note that the dairy is also from pastured cows and goats so in the end it’s almost entirely pasture that’s doing the production.

    I can also provide lysine and other proteins with legumes in the pastures and some vegetables but we have the dairy whey available so that is a good way to go. Right now we get the whey from a local cheese maker – if that was not available I would probably setup my own dairy for feeding our ~400 pastured pigs. Another source of protein for our younger pigs is eggs from our pastured hens – no commercial grain feed for them either. The job of our hens is to eat insects and other pests – organic pest control.

    Pigs look for snakes, voles, grubs, earthworms and such out in the fields – a good source of both protein and lipids. As any pig will tell you, under logs and stones are great places to find these delicacies.

    Hay is like home canning, we’re saving summer pastures for winter eating. To get through our cold winters here in Vermont we also grow a lot of pumpkins, sunchokes, sunflowers, beets and such in the livestock’s winter paddocks during each summer. Then in the late fall we rotate the pigs and other animals onto these areas where they self-harvest the fruits, vegetables and tubers.

    We occasionally get a little bit of spent barley left over from beer making from a local brew pub and a little bit of dated bread from a local bakery. Because our pigs get so little of these things they’re highly appetitive and thus make great training treats. We train our pigs to come down from the mountain when we call as we need to sort, count and load some for market each week as well as examine pregnant sows and shifting them to the farrowing fields as needed.

    You can find out more about our pigs’s diet at SugarMtnFarm.com/pigs

    We have about 60 to 80 sows on pasture – no crating necessary. Good sows do not trample or crush their piglets out on the pastures in natural nests. Unfortunately, good innate mothering skills have been bred out of many pig lines. Mothering skills are also somewhat learned – so a sow does better with her second litter than her first. It is important to breed for good mothering ability, just as we select over the generations for other desirable traits such as temperament, winter-ability, pasture-ability, fast growth on pasture, marbling, etc. I have over two dozen traits that I select for in our breeder animals. Only about 5% of the females get selected to become breeders. It’s even tougher for males since only about 0.5% of them get to carry on – one boar services about 10 to 20 sows. As I like to say, “Breed the best of the best and eat the rest – gradually that improves our herds.” Be very, very picky with breeding stock.

    We don’t have barns and our pigs actually prefer to be able to be outdoors in virtually all weather. They use copses of evergreens, forest and brush for shelter even though we do have some three sided sheds they have access to. Even in the winter you’ll find most of them sleeping out under the stars of their own choice. The times they seek more shelter is primarily when sows farrow – they want privacy, a well draining slope and overhead shelter for a place to build their nests – yes, of straw, sticks and stones.

    If you would like to see more of Sugar Mountain Farm, since it is heavily mentioned in this article and comments, then visit SugarMtnFarm.com which is my blog since 2005 where you’ll find over 1,600 articles and over 10,000 photographs from our farm showing our pigs, chickens, geese, sheep, ducks, dogs and children out on pasture. You’ll also find articles about how we built our tiny cottage in 2005, how we’re building our on-farm USDA/state inspected butcher shop, how our livestock guardian herding dogs work and more.

    I encourage everyone to buy from your local pastured farmers if at all possible. Support your local agriculture, and other businesses, keeping your dollars in your local economy when ever you can.

    Eat well, live long and prosper.


    -Walter Jeffries
    Sugar Mountain Farm

    1. Hey Walter, what would you say is the acreage per pig needed to keep grass growing under them? We raise pigs outdoors in large pens (so they don’t escape) and the greenery is gone down to the root pretty quickly.

      1. I figure that a sustainable population in our climate with our soils on pasture is about ten finisher size pigs per acre. This will vary with the land. With warmer climates you may be able to do more animals per acre but increase slowly and carefully. They need to be managed with a rotational pattern so they are not constantly on the land but moving forward in their grazing pattern. This avoids soil compaction and allows regrowth of the forages. Here is an article from 2007 which I wrote more in detail about this:


        Here is another article from 2011 about rooting management:


        To keep them from escaping, train them to electric fencing. It is very effective. Two strands is enough. We use four strands for our perimeter because we often have sheep too. We focus on fencing the medium to larger pigs as the small pigs tend to stick with the herds.

        1. Those are really useful articles, thanks for taking the time to reply. We’ve not used electric fencing yet as we have small children (though I guess they’d learn pretty quick too!) but we’re setting up a four-pen enclosure on about an acre for our next batch so that has given me lots of ideas!

  26. Interesting to hear about Niman. Sometimes you just have to pick up something at the supermarket and so it is good to know the sneaky language to watch for.

    Last year I bought a share in a piglet and wound up with 90 lb of hand-raised on organics with no hormones etc pig. It was amazing and was the best tasting pork I’ve ever had.

    I have also visited a local grass fed operation, Markegard Family Grass-Fed on their ranch days and seen their cows, sheep and pigs. The pigs were eating fava beans from a local grower and barley mash from the local brewery. They get a lot of past-date produce from local restaurants too. My real concern is that they forage in a eucalyptus grove and I wonder what that would do to a friend who is allergic to those trees (at least in a respiratory fashion). I have no idea how to figure that out.

  27. Thanks for this series, really informative. I’ll admit I didn’t read all of the comments, so maybe somebody already talked about alternatives to farrowing crates. There’s Australian tv show called the Gourmet Farmer. One of the episodes covered a pastures pig producer with a really clever solution.

    Sows and piglets are kept in a three sided shed on pasture (as I recall). A corner of the shed has a wood slat which keeps the sow out, but has enough clearance to let the piglets in and out. A heating lamp is placed in the corner, encouraging the piglets to hang out in there when not feeding. It dramatically reduced the number of smothered piglets while still letting the sow move around freely.

  28. This is from Tendergrass farms:

    “Tendergrass Pastured Chicken, Pastured Pork, and Pastured Turkey:
    – Raised in a 100% pasture based rotational grazing system
    – Never given antibiotics or artificial growth promotants
    – Always fed pure corn and whole roasted soybean based feed”

    They’re fed corn and roasted SOYbeans. This is NOT pasture-raised …

    Any explanation for this? It’s 100% pasture raised, but they say they are fed corn and soy … that’s not quality meat in my opinion so what gives?

    1. Lauren,

      It seems that perhaps you may be possibly confusing the production claim “grass fed” (which is usually just used for lamb and beef) with “pastured” or “pasture raised.” While many people may assume that pastured pork, chicken, and turkey i=are all raised on grass alone, this is almost never an accurate assumption. Please read the paragraphs under the subheading “Free Ranging Outdoors/Pastured, Crate Free” above. This topic is also covered in this post: https://www.marksdailyapple.com/what-you-should-know-about-beef-production-claims/

      In short, pigs are not ruminant herbivores and there fore cannot be healthy on a diet of grass alone. (Just as people cannot be healthy on a diet of salad alone.) For this reason we do feed our pigs verified non-GMO corn and verified non-GMO whole roasted soybeans. When we say “100% pastured raised” we mean that all of our pigs are raised outdoors in a rotational grazing system in either woods or fields. Please note that we are currently in the final stages of phasing any potentially GMO-fed pastured pork out of our inventory so we will be able to say that all of our pork was fed only verified non-GMO feed within a few months. At this point we still have perhaps 5% of our pork in stock that is from pigs that were fed feed that could have potentially not been 100% GMO-free.

      1. Actually, pigs can be raised quite nicely on just pasture. I’ve done this several times. They take several extra months to get to market size and are leaner but they thrive just fine.

        We also feed dairy (primarily whey) because that adds lysine. This brings the growth rate up to about the same as raising them on grain but still has the pasture benefits. The vast majority of our pigs’s diet is pasture and pigs can thrive on pasture – that’s what wild pigs do.

  29. After reading this article,I just had to mention my experience getting a pig. After going toward a more paleo/primal diet and researching the subject of meat and meat purchasing, I had gotten a chest freezer. Looking on Craig’s list I found a guy with pigs for sale about two hours away (I live in the San Francisco area). We had some cold weather this December and I thought it was a good time to get my pig. He had 5 pigs available and let me take my pick. They were living in a large outdoor pen with a lean to shelter and raised primarily on grain and dairy products ( this was part of a dairy farm) I picked the largest and agreed to give him $290 instead of the original $250 since it was probably a 400 lb animal as opposed to the 200 – 300 pounds of the other animals. He trailered it over to some neighbors, where for $60 they slaughtered, scalded and scraped, gutted, and sectioned the animal. So for $350 I had over 300 lbs of pig. It was an immense amount of work to process this in my garage over the next few days but finally it was all frozen, or brined and iced in chests.

    That was all great, the downside however is that my wife, the kids, and my friends all think I’m nuts. I’ve talked to them about grass fed beef, we keep chickens for eggs, I have bees and enjoy my own honey and they still think I’m crazy. I tell them I like to see the animal I’m going to eat and avoid CAFO raised pork and they still think it’s weird. I actually got rid of the head (what a crime) because after several days of rendering lard, grinding sausage and making bone broth, I though that if I
    started making head cheese I would be sleeping on the couch.
    The pork and bacon are delicious however.

  30. I am SO very pleased to find many farms that are going organic/non GMO pork. we have raised pigs on pasture but back then there were NO GMO grains. yes we fed table scraps and sour milk and whey and they thrived. wish all would look at tropical traditions for wonderful products, even Coconut oils by bulk and all are certified NON GMO. they feed thier laying hens with coconut parts also and NO SOY of any kind. NO CANOLA OIL which is deadly for humans. (even can be a pesticide) thier eggs and butter is wonderful also, i will go wit h the pork producers th at feeds only NON-GMO grains.